A newsletter on progress-space research and audience development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

I was hunched over a bag of pistachios yesterday morning, dropping shells into a wastebasket. Pistachios are perfect for procrastinating — pistastinating — because you have to claw open each little shell, so it takes about sixteen hours to ingest a meaningful number of calories. By dawn the following day, your fingernails are gone, and you have proof that Satan is real and that he is the one who does your grocery shopping.

This particular pistachio k-hole was brought on by the prospect of returning to coding interviews after a long weekend. (If you’re just joining us, I’ve been interviewing leaders of cultural organizations about their beliefs and understanding of audience motivations.) It can be hard to listen to recordings of the interviews and code the transcripts because I have to review my end of the conversation, too. I notice all the questions I should have asked but didn’t.

For example, I interviewed a director at one organization who told me about a successful exhibit that took staff by surprise. The exhibit centered around a pop culture reference — The theme was related to the org’s mission but it was light-hearted and entertaining. It brought in a lot of visitors, but it was also “the one exhibit that (staff) was perhaps most skeptical about in terms of its seriousness and educational legitimacy.”

I asked whether there had been any plans to try to reproduce that success by developing a new, similar show.

They said: “That was in 2014… in the time since then, I wouldn't say there was a concerted effort to find a similar pop-culture type of exhibit. Because, you know, I think there is a bias towards more serious types of content.”

In hindsight, this is a moment in the interview where I screwed up. I knew that the organization had been looking for ways to increase revenue, and clearly this exhibit had been an economic hit. At this point, I should have dug deeper.

  • How did that exhibit come about?
  • What persuaded those serious-minded staff members to put together a pop-culture hit?
  • What prevents an organization from revisiting past successes and trying to repeat those successes?
  • Was the bias the interviewee described so strong that decision makers could not consider diversifying the tone of the organization’s offerings to help meet financial goals?

Instead, I moved on to other questions I had planned.

What I’d really like to know is how organizations can balance biases like the one my interviewee referenced. I say balance — not overcome — because not all biases are bad. It’s not inherently bad, for example, to favor educational or more high-minded content, but in certain circumstances compromise may be necessary.

But it will be harder to compromise if product development is siloed. That’s why I regret not having asked about how this particular exhibit came about — What was the catalyst for that change? What was the origin of the idea? Did it come from an unexpected place? Marketing? Patrons? A bag of pistachios?

I’m not sure. Instead, I thought I’d turn it over to you all.

Have you ever put together an exhibit or developed some content that was out of character for your organization? How did that come about? How was it received? Who is usually responsible for coming up with new content ideas? Do you have systems in place to try to bring in ideas and feedback from other departments or audiences?

Let me know in a reply — I’d be happy to hear from you.

Thanks for reading,

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